James Deaton is the technology director of OneNet, our Oklahoma State Regents‘ network, and he’s one of the smartest people I know when it comes to educational technology and networking. Several months ago James told me about some video transcoding solutions he’d read about which utilize Amazon Web Services, and we discussed the amazingly inexpensive backup option now provided by Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3.) Basically, instead of or in addition to backing up computer data to a local external hard drive, Amazon S3 (for pennies on the gig) lets users backup their files “to the cloud:” a distributed array of networked computers around the United States (or in Europe if you prefer) which offer disaster recovery protection and file backup peace of mind.
This past summer, we had a tornado warning during the day which resulted in our family evacuating to our nearby church’s basement. Thankfully the tornado did not touch down and cause damage, but it certainly left a psychological impression on me. With just about sixty seconds to hastily grab our kids, dogs, as well as a few items in the house, what do you think I took with me to our tornado shelter? My laptop and two external firewire hard drives, of course!
Those external hard drives contain every digital photo we’ve ever taken as a family since 1999, along with backups of all my data files. In addition, I keep our entire family iTunes library on one of the drives, and since my 80 GB iPod was stolen this summer that library is the ONLY complete backup of all our songs, audio books, videos and movies. I shudder to consider what a psychological blow it would be to lose all that data.
Since that time, I’ve known we needed to start using an off-site backup solution like Amazon S3 or at a minimum, DVD-backups of files sequestered away in a distant family or friend’s house, but “I’ve been too busy” to make the time required to create those backups. Today, however, a near-disaster caught my attention and has pushed me over the “I’ve gotta backup all my stuff tipping point.” When I was downloading new podcasts to iTunes and using one of our external hard drives today, I accidentally knocked it over and it started making strange clicking sounds. I had to force-restart the computer, and when everything booted up again the hard drive did NOT mount. I didn’t have a heart attack, but I’m sure my pulse was considerably faster. I repaired disk permissions on my Mac, and thankfully that seemed to do the trick– or just leaving the hard drive connected long enough did. In any event, the external hard drive mounted and my data reappeared. My heartrate again returned to a normal speed.
According to the Amazon S3 website:
Amazon S3 provides a simple web services interface that can be used to store and retrieve any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the web. It gives any developer access to the same highly scalable, reliable, fast, inexpensive data storage infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own global network of web sites. The service aims to maximize benefits of scale and to pass those benefits on to developers.
Since the service was announced in mid-2006, a variety of batch procedures and software programs have been developed to automate and ease the process of backing up files to S3. Thanks to Adam Nash’s April 2007 post “Amazon S3: Backbone to Cheap Multi-GB Web Backup for Mac OS X?” I learned about two different software programs which look viable for my personal computing cloud backup needs: Jungle Disk and Bandwagon.
Bandwagon is still in beta and appears to be primarily focused on providing iTunes virtual network drives, so I opted to give Jungle Disk a try today. Jungle Disk is available for multiple platforms (Windows users too, not just the Mac OS and Linux) and offers a free 30-day trial. Since I didn’t have to part with money for my experiment, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
Jungle Disk is a $20 program which streamlines, simplifies, and schedules the process of regularly backing up your computer files to Amazon S3. The first-time setup requires five different steps. Users do have to specify a payment method for Amazon S3, but it is not necessary to give Jungle Disk authors any money or credit card info to use their trial software version.
The pricing for Amazon S3 is hard to beat, especially since you only pay for what you use in file storage and data transfers.
Jungle Disk facilitates setup of your S3 “bucket” as either a site for automatic file backups and/or a network drive, or both. I opted for the latter.
Certainly my biggest surprise of the day was seeing the gigabyte total for the three directories I wanted to backup: My laptop documents, my backup digital photos and my iTunes library. Total size? Almost 170 gigs!
I do have a relatively fast residential cable modem connection to the Internet, but even with that connection (which of course has much slower average upload speeds than download speeds) Jungle Disk told me it would take about a month (that’s right, about 30 days) to upload all my data to Amazon S3. Goodness gracious! I can leave my computer alone overnight for a backup process, but for a month?! I don’t think so!
I decided to cancel that backup plan, and instead see how long it would take to JUST backup my digital photos. I have 12 GB worth at the present time. Estimated time needed to back up 12 GB to Amazon S3 over my home Internet connection? 24 hours. Yikes!
I still want to configure and use Jungle Disk to backup my computer files, but it’s clear I am going to need to be more selective in what I end up backing up. It can be a somewhat arduous and painful process to go through old computer files and throw out what is no longer needed or wanted, but like cleaning a desk or a garage out periodically it is needed. In the past, I’ve favored the purchase of a larger hard drive over the process of sorting and throwing away old, unneeded files. Yet perhaps, that day has dawned.
Before fully configuring and using Amazon S3, I’ve resolved to make a series of DVD backups of my digital photos as well as iTunes library. iTunes now provides a ready way to burn the contents of your library to CDs or DVDs.
I’m thinking I might also purchase a smaller firewire drive (if you can call a 250 GB external hard drive “small”) and put my archived, backup copies of my data on it, and then place it offsite / away from my home either in a bank safety deposit box or at a family/friend’s house. That way, I can rest easy that a complete backup of my archived media files is safe from a fire, tornado, or theft disaster at my home, and I can configure my Jungle Disk solution to just backup the ACTIVE files which I’m working on and updating regularly. Those files are a fraction of the total I now have, so that should make the Amazon S3 backup process much faster as well as a little cheaper per month. The “plus” version of Jungle Disk supports incremental backups, and I may opt for that at $24 per year. That’s about the price of a Flickr Pro account (not including the initial $20 outlay, of course) and that price point seems VERY reasonable for the peace of mind it could provide.
My 11 year old son was very interested in us utilizing Bandwagon, since he’d like to be able to sync his Nano on his own laptop without messing with an external hard drive and having to use my computer for the sync. I’ve signed up for the free beta and we may give that a try over the holidays. With the transfer speeds to S3 being so slow today over our home connection, however, I’m not sure what the viability of maintaining our 3500+ song iTunes library “in the cloud” via Bandwagon will be.
Have you had positive or negative experiences backing up your data or using a network drive for a shared iTunes library on Amazon S3, via either Jungle Disk, Bandwagon, or another application? If so I’d love to hear what you’ve learned and your advice for others considering these different options.
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